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May 10, 2015

The CPEC: a timeline

Opinion

 
May 10, 2015

Over the last few months a huge debate started on social, print and electronic media over the alleged changes to the original route of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). However, it became more intense during the recent visit of the Chinese president when Pakistan and China signed a $45.6 billion MoU for Chinese investment in CPEC.
Almost all political parties started protesting against the PML-N government both inside and outside parliament over the changes in the original route. The ANP and the PPP held separate all-parties conferences to build a consensus against any changes to the original route. There were some protests too in the two smaller provinces against the alleged changes in the CPEC route. The ruling PML-N government and its ministers’ response to this criticism is ambiguous, at best. These lines will try to give a brief timeline of official response to the allegations of changes in the CPEC route.
The latest response from the government came via a tweet from Ahsan Iqbal on April 30, 2015 where he shared a map, showing four routes for the CPEC. The minister tweeted: “CPEC routes: work in progress on all (routes) simultaneously and western (route) will be operational first. IA”. However the annual PSDP document of the Planning Commission and the 51 MoUs signed on April 20, 2015 negate ‘work in progress on all routes’.
All 21 projects of the CPEC mentioned in the PSDP 2014-15 document are for developing the eastern route only. Similarly, the MoUs signed with the Chinese government have no investment commitment for the western route of the CPEC. The Planning Commission also uploaded a map on its official website giving the ‘Economic Nodes of the CPEC’ without giving any map of the route(s) of the corridor.
Probably the very first response from the government on the alleged changes in CPEC route came in June, 2014 in a meeting of the Senate Standing Committee on Finance and Revenue when some opposition senators

questioned the proposed changes in the original route. Responding to a question, the secretary for planning & development confirmed that the proposal (to change the route) was on the table on request by the Chinese ambassador. Later, Ahsan Iqbal joined the meeting and confirmed a change of plan on the corridor project. According to the minister the government had chosen the eastern route (going through Punjab and Sindh) over the western route (going through KP and Balochistan) because the news route has Early Harvest Projects (EHPs) that can be completed in 4-5 years’.
The minister also argued that “the government would move to the next phase after reaping economic benefits of the first phase and by the time the national economy would become strong enough to take on big projects”. He further asked the opposition “to find out investors for constructing this important corridor on BOT (build-operate-transfer) basis and then there will be no change in the original plan (western route).”
In another meeting on October 10, 2014 of the Senate’s Standing Committee on Communications, members from the smaller provinces CPEC. Chairman Senate Standing Committee Daud Khan Achakzai complained that their earlier recommendations were not entertained by the government. The members of the committee expressed annoyance over the absence of the minister of state for communications from the meeting.
Fast forward to the Senate session on February 3, 2015. Ahsan Iqbal termed the reports of route change as “propaganda by forces that did not want to see improvement in Pakistan-China relations”. However, in the same Senate session, Ahsan Iqbal said that “the government was considering using the existing infrastructure to benefit from trade with China and Central Asian States during the ‘interim period’ on China’s request”. While senators from the smaller provinces were complaining that the government changed the route to include Lahore, Multan, Sukkur & Hyderabad, the minister called it only an ‘interim arrangement’ to use existing infrastructure.
In yet another meeting of the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs on February 5, 2015, the NHA chairman is reported to have told members of the committee that “Whatever we have done is with the consent of the Chinese authorities who told us that instead of waiting (for the original route), the existing road network could be used for making Gwadar port operational at the earliest.” To which Senator Farhatullah Babar remarked that once the new alignment became operational it would, over time, create its own vested interests, and that it would be impossible to revert to the initially planned alignment via D I Khan and D G Khan. Thus for all practical purposes the new alignment would become final and irrevocable. The senator further said that the decision about the economic corridor’s alignment was fundamentally a political decision and had to be addressed at a political level and by bureaucrats attending the meeting.
After the ANP held an APC on the corridor on February 18, 2015 to build consensus against changes in the original route, Ahsan Iqbal started saying on public forums that the economic corridor would have multiple routes, and that not a single inch (of the original plan) had been changed. He also talked about the wrong maps been floated on the internet which to him were spreading confusion regarding the corridor. Later in April, 2015, he started saying – and tweeting – that the western route of the CPEC would be completed in 2016, pointing out the already completed work on N-85 & M-8.
It needs also to be pointed out that earlier on February 8, 2015, the Planning Commission tweeted a map of the corridor from its official Twitter account where only the eastern route was showed; this tweet was later deleted after strong criticism ensued over it. The same (deleted) map is also given in the annual report 2013 of the Pakistan China Institute which is a non-government, non-partisan and non-political think tank (and can be accessed on their website). This particular think tank is headed by Mushahid Hussain Syed who is now co-chair of the newly founded think tank ‘Research and Development International’.
Despite tremendous pressure on the current government from political parties, print, electronic and social media to be more clear on the CPEC route change, the response of the PML-N government is ambiguous at best. Their changing positions about the route(s) of the CPEC, and not sharing detailed information about this important project with political parties and the general public, cast doubts about their intentions.
The writer is a freelance contributor from Islamabad.

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